Issue No.1326, 5 January, 2017      03-01-2017 09:34AM ET

Will the DRC avoid war?

An agreement between the regime and opposition is in the offing. But could it hold, asks Haitham Nouri

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The regime and opposition in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) are closer than ever to reaching agreement. Sponsored by the Catholic Church, which enjoys wide influence in the country, according to the deal President Joseph Kabila would step down after elections are held end of 2017. The country would meanwhile be run by an interim council headed by historic leader of the opposition Etienne Tshisekedi, 84. The main mission of the interim council, according to the 11th hour agreement, is to regulate local, parliamentary and presidential elections, after which power will be handed over to a new president.

Kabila, 45, came to power after his father, Laurent-Désiré Kabila was assassinated in 2001. He tried to amend the constitution to run for a third term after his second ran out 19 December. The regime effectively extended his term by one year under the pretext that it cannot hold presidential elections across the country. Kabila will appoint a key figure in the opposition to form a national unity government, which is a sensitive issue that has been a sticking point in negotiations until the last minute.

The Catholic Church, represented by the National Episcopal Conference of Congo (CENCO), called for talks between the government and opposition after widespread protests objecting to the president’s desire to eliminate constitutional limits on presidential terms. Security forces dealt with protests violently, killing 56 to over 100 people, while the UN estimates 40 killed and 460 arrested since 19 December. Based on reports by the UN, Human Rights Watch, the Congolese army and local activists, Reuters estimates some 85 people were killed across the country. According to the deal, the new government will look at detainees on a case-by-case basis.

Talks between the government and opposition began 6 December and continued for more than three tense weeks, concluding in an announcement on the last Friday of 2016. The head of CENCO, Father Marcel Utembi announced that the two sides had reached “agreement on all points”. This was confirmed by Congolese Minister of Justice Alexis Thambwe Mwamba, who said “everything is complete.”

Meanwhile, Valentin Mubake, the leader of the bloc that includes most opposition parties, also announced an agreement had been reached. Although the two sides did not sign the agreement Saturday, there is cautious optimism in African circles for the first peaceful transfer of power in the country since independence from Belgium in 1960.

Neither Kabila nor Tshisekedi are expected to sign the deal, which casts doubt on how committed either side is to the settlement. This is not the only issue of concern for local and regional observers. Reuters reported that Congolese lawyer and election expert Sylvain Lumu is concerned about holding three elections at the same time at the end of the year. “There seems to be a shared will by the government and opposition to not hold comprehensive elections, or at least not on time,” Lumu said.

Holding elections in such a vast country as DRC — which is the size of Western Europe, with thick jungles, poor infrastructure and tribal fragmentation — will not be easy.

According to Amond Atchobi, an activist from South Sudan who participated in monitoring several elections in the Middle East and East Africa, illiteracy hinders holding several elections simultaneously. Atchobi said elections in Sudan in April 2010 (before South Sudan seceded) were for the president, central parliament, provincial governors, governor, South Sudan parliament and local parliaments. There were many voting violations.

Western capitals are interested in the Church-sponsored talks out of concern that civil war would once again erupt after the 1994-2003 war, which killed nearly five million people, mostly by hunger and disease. Armies from neighbouring countries were involved in the bloodshed which transformed it into the continent’s broadest regional war and the most violent in the world since the end of the World War II.

In the first months of the war, the regime of Joseph Mobutu (known as Mobutu Sese Seko) was toppled, and in 2001 his rival Laurent Kabila was killed before he was succeeded by his son. Concerns about not implementing the agreement are heightened because of the country’s unstable history. The hero of independence Patrice Lamumba was assassinated months after independence. The first president, Joseph Kasa-Vubu, was ousted in a coup by Mobutu in 1965, who in turn was ousted by an armed revolution led by Kabila Sr with the help of Uganda and Rwanda in 1997. Four years later, Kabila was killed by one of his own bodyguards.

No one has ever left power voluntarily or peacefully, which raises serious doubts about the intentions of the incumbent president.

Kabila is not the only president who tried to amend the constitution to extend his reign. His neighbour to the north, President Denis Sassou Nguesso of the Republic of Congo (Congo Brazzaville), did it in 2016, ran again and won, even though he has been in power since his coup in 1979. Another neighbour, Rwandan President Paul Kagame, did the same thing (he has been in power since the end of the genocide in 1994), and the same is true of Burundi President Pierre Nkurunziza. In Uganda, President Yoweri Museveni has been in power since 1986 despite growing objections, especially during the 2016 elections.

But there is a brighter side. The presidents of Senegal (former leader Abdoulaye Wade) and Burkina Faso Blaise Compaore failed to amend the constitution, and the same occurred in Zambia and Mozambique. A positive factor is that Western countries do not want to see a large-scale civil war again in one of the wealthiest countries in Africa in terms of precious minerals such as diamonds, copper, gold and cobalt.

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